Directed by Jared Hess and co-written with his wife, Jerusha, “Don Verdean” is a lighthearted poke at the world of biblical archaeology, a field Hess describes as an amusing “fringe” element of mainstream Christianity.
The film’s namesake, played by Sam Rockwell, is a career faith-based archaeologist who has fallen on hard times. Verdean’s seminars used to pack in the faithful, but in the present day he is lucky to sell a few dusty copies of his old book.
Suddenly salvation comes by way of a preacher named Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), a boisterous character who offers to fund Verdean’s digs in full, as long as the archaeologist agrees to feature them at the pastor’s church. His motivation? A rival preacher named Fontaine (Will Forte) has been siphoning his congregation, and Lazarus thinks Verdean’s relics can swing the pendulum back home.
Energized by his second chance, Verdean teams up with his longtime assistant Carol (Amy Ryan) and an Israeli contact in the Holy Land named Boaz (Jemaine Clement). One by one, they start searching out Old Testament relics such as Lot’s wife (a tower of stone that bears an odd resemblance to a well-endowed woman) or Goliath’s skull.
It’s a great plan, but Verdean and Boaz’s ambitions quickly begin to outpace their results, and ethical compromises slowly spin their arrangement out of control.
Hess is best known for “Napoleon Dynamite,” another Sundance feature, and in the time since he has also helmed “Nacho Libre” with Jack Black, as well as 2009’s “Gentlemen Broncos,” which also starred Clement.
“Don Verdean” is in line with the quirkiness of those previous efforts and offers another stew of oddball characters, sight gags and general weirdness. Overall though, it feels more mainstream than the heavily stylized “Napoleon Dynamite.”
In spite of its silly sheen, “Don Verdean” does tap into the nature of what makes up sincere religious belief. While its characters wrestle with the ethical push and pull of their efforts, the tenuous faith of the various congregations seems to teeter on seeing physical proof of various biblical stories.
Rockwell and Clement have a good time with the material and are well-suited as a comic odd couple, though McBride’s over-the-top preacher may be the most natural matching of actor and character. Ryan emotes the same daft sweetness she mastered on TV’s “The Office” as Michael Scott’s dream girl, and Forte is effective in some comparatively limited screen time.
Local audiences will also have a good time flagging Utah landmarks throughout the film. Most of “Don Verdean” was filmed in Salt Lake City and southern Utah, which acts as a stand-in for the Holy Land. Audience members at a Saturday night Sundance screening smiled at a third act chase through Antelope Canyon and laughed while watching Boaz and Carol pull up to Habits for an awkward night on the town.
“Don Verdean” probably won’t replace “Napoleon Dynamite” on the list of cinematic accomplishments for Team Hess, but it’s a worthy entry to a unique portfolio.
“Don Verdean” was featured at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and is not rated but will probably receive a PG-13 for some mild profanity and vulgarity, as well as some comic violence and gore.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.